By TODDI GUTNER
Leveraging her career in the foreign service to build a second act also serving others was a natural for Linda Watt, now head of operations for the Episcopal Church.
Name: Linda E. Watt
The leap for Linda Watt from her first career as 29-year-veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service that culminated as the Ambassador to Panama to the chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church isn’t as big as one would think. Watt uses the same skills — people management, problem solving and decision making — in both positions.
By the time Ms. Watt went to college, she already had her sights set on working for the U.S. Foreign Service in Latin America. Her interest was born out of her summer visits to her father, who worked as a Latin American specialist with the Army at embassies in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
While she knew the life of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) was a tough one — little choice of where she would be posted and frequent moves every one to four years — Ms. Watt’s passion for diverse cultures and languages led her to join the service immediately after she received her masters in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. “My father encouraged me to think more broadly about the workplace and directed me to the State Department in particular,” says Ms. Watt. But she also knew that, similar to the military, as an FSO you were either promoted up or out.
Ms. Watt went up. The next 29 years took her to some of the most diplomatically delicate places in the world: Nicaragua during its civil war; Russia at the time of an attempted Coup against then-leader Boris Yelstin and the Dominican Republic during Hurricane Georges. Among her many assignments at these locales and, Ms. Watt served as an Embassy management officer (a chief operating officer) supervising several hundred American and host country employees and managed multi-million dollar Embassy operating budgets.
It was in these positions that Ms. Watt learned and honed such valuable skills as negotiating a political workplace, prioritizing, solving a host of day-to-day problems and running large, diverse organizations. “I had a perspective that I was there to serve and do whatever needed to be done,” she says.
It was just that attitude that got Ms. Watt attention when she ended up as Acting U.S. Ambassador in the Dominican Republic from 1997 to 1999. “It was turning point for me because I think I had been thought of as an internal person not as one dealing with foreign, economic and government issues,” she says.
About one-third of ambassadors are political appointees, the remaining two-thirds are FSOs. Ms. Watt had proved herself in the temporary role and began to receive calls about ambassadorship possibilities. In 2002, she was selected as Ambassador to Panama. “When I started my career as a foreign service officer I would have laughed if you asked me if I thought I could be an ambassador, says Ms. Watt, noting that few women held that position when she began her career in the late 1970s.
Ms. Watt says didn’t believe she “would ever have a bigger, better, more satisfying job.” But, she knew it would be a while before another ambassadorship opportunity surfaced and until then, ” I would either be in some kind of bureaucratic holding pattern or go on the faculty of the National War College.” Neither option inspired her. At 53-years-old she was eligible for a full pension and decided, rather than wait or teach, she would retire.
While Ms. Watt made haste to Utah where she and her husband built a dream house. Her second act was accidental, particularly since, after years of moving around, Ms. Watt had no intention of ever moving again. She had to reevaluate that promise to herself in late 2006 when she saw a posting for a chief operating officer position at the Episcopal Church. A longtime Episcopal, the posting caught her eye in the church newsletter; she says she thought she was being called to the position. Based in New York City, it meant moving yet again. But she “felt compelled that it was exactly what I was supposed to do,” she says.
Ms. Watt now runs the day-to-day operations of the Church’s headquarters which including managing the administration, finance, human resources and technology for the Church. She is also responsible for overseeing the Church’s special missions, which she has restructured in the 18 months she has been with the church. “If someone were to design a job that gathered all my skills that I had built over my entire career, this would be the job,” she says.
The presiding Bishop of the church says Ms. Watt’s years as a diplomat – and the skills she gained in that capacity – have been an asset to the church. “(They) have been not only valuable, but essential, to her work with the Episcopal Church Center,” says Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. “The diplomacy intrinsic to an ambassador; the ability to relate constructively to a broad cross-section of the public; well-honed administrative and management gifts; and the ability to lead with vision as well as insist on accountability and performance” are all carried over from her first act career.
As for the financial compensation, Ms. Watt says it’s a wash. While she had benefits as a federal employee that she doesn’t have now, she does see living in New York and still maintaining a home in Utah as a huge advantage.